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  • The Imperial Network in Ancient China: The Foundation of Sinitic Empire in Southern East Asia by Maxim Korolkov
  • Alice Yao
The Imperial Network in Ancient China: The Foundation of Sinitic Empire in Southern East Asia. Maxim Korolkov. New York: Routledge, 2022. 300+ pp., 24 figures, 5 tables, 3 appendices, glossary, index. Hardback US $136, ISBN 9780367654283; Paperback US $42, ISBN 9780367654290; eBook US $42, ISBN 9781003129394.

At the outset of Seeing Like a State, James Scott (1998: 2) argued that "the premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind." Given the lack of bureaucratic technologies to measure the productivity of its peoples and lands, it had little knowledge about its subjects and geography. Korolkov's book, The Imperial Network in Ancient China, revises this narrative by documenting the development of state spaces in one of the lesser known places in China at the southern peripheries of the Qin and Han empires. From a long historical perspective, regions south of the Yangzi River valley have conventionally been represented as a geographic backwater of the Chinese state, at least until the fourth to fifth century c.e. State integration, as Korolkov endeavors to show us in this book, should really be examined as an extended process, one beginning with the Sinitic territorial gamble from the third century b.c.e. to the first century c.e. This account of geopolitics in early China is a timely one, especially as recent excavations of Qin and Han imperial settlements in newly consolidated territories have yielded many bureaucratic documents written on wooden or bamboo boards and strips, most of which have only recently been transcribed. These not only show the state deploying writing technologies to register and control people and goods in faraway places, the corpus from Liye (the Qin county of Qianling), which represents the centerpiece of Korolkov's study, shows how the high cost incurred by institutional schemes to organize knowledge can also make the state a fragile enterprise (Yoffee 2019).

These political developments are organized in chronological order beginning with the Qin conquest (230–214 b.c.e.) of the middle Yangzi watershed in chapter 4 to the Han expansion into Lingnan (a region encompassing the modern day provinces of Hunan, Guangdong, and Guangxi in China and northern Vietnam) after 110 b.c.e. in chapter 7. Throughout these chapters, Korolkov presents state spaces as part of an expanding and contracting spatial network linking different ecologies across a mountainous terrain. One of the many possible benefits of this structure is that the reader is compelled to engage with a geopolitics beyond a territorial model of bounded spaces.

It is worth mentioning that the corpus recovered from the site of Liye in Hunan comprises something like seventeen thousand wooden strips and boards. Korolkov has undertaken the tremendous task of sorting through everything from household registration records to functionaries' memos to show how the organization of state spaces changed through time. He begins by tracing the evolution of the south as a space of interaction to one of confrontation. Reading chapters 2 and 3 together highlights the importance of differentiating an "old" from a "new" frontier and provides much welcomed nuance to the expansionist project. Chapter 4 uses excavated administrative records to illustrate the spatialization of this "new" southern frontier, in [End Page 129] particular the locations of lower level politicoadministrative units within Dongting Commandery. Korolkov not only fills in place names that are missing from the standard Chinese historiographies but also shows how the (under)staffing of this new Qin territory, recognized then as lying beyond the old frontier in "barbarian" territories, was filled by underqualified bureaucrats and plagued by poor morale. Chapter 5 discusses the coordination of county and district level affairs and the composition of frontier society, specifically the people who were relocated to these mountainous corridors by the state. Korolkov's analysis of the administrative registers reveals a high number of conscripts and convicts and a low number of civilian households whose identities were nevertheless manipulated by the state. We get a picture of Qin social engineering but at the same time of people absconding.

Chapter 6 gives an interesting account of the local fiscal economy. Analysis...